Thursday, November 19, 2009

Five Cuts: No doubt, this year the best team won the World Series

Posted: Thursday November 5, 2009 12:27PM; Updated: Thursday November 5, 2009 12:45PM

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Five Cuts: No doubt, this year the best team won the World Series Story Highlights
The Yankees were the best team for the past five months (they went 76-30)
Series MVP Hideki Matsui didn't start half the games and never played the field
The Phillies' demise came down to two at-bats in the third inning of Game 6

1. Sometimes Goliath wins, or, if you prefer the most appropriate analogy after World Series Game 6, Godzilla kicks butt.

Really, who could argue that the Yankees were the best baseball team for the past five months (they went 76-30, a .717 winning percentage, and never faced a crisis game), and that there was no way the Phillies were going to beat them with only one pitcher, Cliff Lee, who could hold them down. I liked what Hank Steinbrenner said in the winning clubhouse about how the front office viewed the team back in spring training: "We knew we had the best team in baseball."

After years of seeing upstarts, hot teams and cursebreakers win the World Series and playoff baseball reduced to "a crapshoot," we got an old fashioned, the-best-team-won World Series. In most every winning clubhouse players blather about how "no one expected us to be here" and "we had to overcome a lot of adversity to be here," but it was kind of refreshing to see the favored horse bring a win home by a comfortable margin.

By no means was it all easy. It's a credit to general manager Brian Cashman, whose moves for Damaso Marte, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira were inspired, and manager Joe Girardi, who pulled a nice Tom Coughlin by smoothing his rough edges without compromising who he is. Winning with the best team takes overcoming the pressure that you're supposed to win, and that's not as easy as it sounds. Cashman and Girardi struck the right cord in allowing this team the room to have its fun and still be prepared.

The Yankees are the first team to lead the league in runs and home runs and win the World Series since the great 1984 Tigers. They won a championship with three starting pitchers in the postseason, the first time that has been done since the 1991 Twins. They won every game in the World Series not started by Lee. They won the World Series with four pitchers (three starters and Mariano Rivera) getting 75 percent of the outs.

Don't look for Cinderella here, or even a Kirk Gibson moment for perpetuity. The lasting moment of the Series might be Johnny Damon swiping two bases on one pitch, though a lack of preparation by the Phillies helped make it so.

The World Series gave us six games for the first time in six years -- the longest such drought in Series history -- but none of the games was decided by one run. It was the first time since 1987 that we didn't get any one-run games in a Series of at least six games. Was it a great World Series? Not really. But was it won by a great team? Absolutely.

2. It's tough to argue against a guy with the area code of Nashville for a batting average (.615) winning the MVP Award. Hideki Matsui truly was a monster at the plate. But Matsui didn't start half the games and never played an inning in the field. If you wanted all-around contributions, you could look to Derek Jeter. The Yankees shortstop batted .407 and, at 35, became the oldest shortstop to play for a world championship team since Pee Wee Reese of the 1955 Dodgers.

Jeter is a career .321 hitter in the World Series, including .381 in clinching wins. Jeter has scored seven runs in his five clinching wins, including at least one in each. Only Joe DiMaggio (7) has more clinching wins with a run scored than Jeter, who is tied with Bill Dickey.

3. The end of the Phillies came down to two at-bats in the third inning, both of which they mangled. The first occurred when Jeter hit a one-out line drive to center field. Shane Victorino misread the ball and broke back. He hesitated, then broke in, but it was too late. The ball, hit with topspin, bounced into his glove for a single. Starting pitcher Pedro Martinez should have been pitching with two outs and nobody on base in a 2-1 game. Instead, a Yankee rally was ignited by Victorino's gaffe.

Philadelphia may have been able to work around the mistake if not for one last fatal move by manager Charlie Manuel, starring in Grady Little, the Sequel.

The bases were loaded with two outs when Matsui came to bat against Martinez. Matsui's last four plate appearances in the World Series against Martinez had gone like this: home run, home run, walk, single. Manuel had left-hander J.A. Happ warmed in the bullpen. But no, Manuel stuck with Martinez.

It is the best and worst quality about Manuel: his iron-clad belief in his players. He believed too much in Martinez at that moment. There was no indication that Martinez had anything to get Matsui out. Nothing. At least Little was dealing with a Martinez who had stuff. This Martinez came out throwing fastballs as weakly as 83 mph. The folks at kept reporting that Martinez was throwing a ton of changeups, but those were really very poor fastballs.

Matsui slammed a two-run single. The Yankees were up 4-1, and were not about to be caught.

Look at it this way: In the absolute best-case scenario, Martinez retires the next four hitters and is pulled from the game. So it was not as if Manuel was expecting much length out of Martinez. If he wasn't going to allow Martinez to go through the order a third time, why in the world would he let him pitch to a left-hander with the bases loaded and the game in the balance?

"We can go down 4-1 and we can definitely rebound there," Manuel said.

Uh, no, Charlie. First, Manuel is an excellent manager but he's not the guy you want running an elimination game. He just doesn't bring the required urgency to the situation.

Second, Manuel and the Phillies got lulled into losses because they were used to coming back on closers such as Huston Street and Jonathan Broxton. They were up against the great Rivera this time and Manuel underestimated that task. Getting down 4-1 after three innings is a huge problem when Rivera is looming to cover the last two innings. That means you are under the gun to make up three runs before the Yankees get 12 outs, and that assumes you can hold the Yankees offense to nothing in the meantime.

4. Martinez left the Phillies clubhouse before it was open to the media. He left alone, until a small group of reporters began walking with him through a hallway toward an elevator. It was difficult to ask Martinez questions because a drunken fan kept shouting at him, mixing praise and who's-your-daddy insults. It was a bizarre scene, certainly not one befitting a great pitcher like Martinez. He was a man on the run, escaping through the shadows as a drunk heckled him.

Martinez did reveal that he was bothered by flu-like symptoms. "I had a little trouble breathing out there," he said. That was news to Manuel, who said, "He didn't say anything about that."

Martinez did seem out of sorts against Matsui, as if that low curveball that Matsui golfed into the seats in Game 2 fried his circuits of creativity. In the second inning, Martinez threw Matsui eight pitches. Every one of them fit in the narrow range of between 83 and 89 mph, the last of which Matsui walloped for a two-run homer. Too many pitches with the same look is the last thing you would expect from Martinez. He paid dearly for it.

In the third inning, too, Martinez showed little change of speeds against Matsui. His pitches were 81, 90 and 90 mph. Martinez got beat on a fastball up -- it was not elevated nearly enough -- on the very pitch after Matsui pounded a fastball hard that barely curved to the foul side of the right-field line. So Martinez twice had Matsui 0 and 2 in the game. He threw seven pitches on those 0-and-2 counts and never could put him away. With a strange, steady diet of fastballs, he got beat twice on that pitch for a total of four runs.

Now, about the second coming of Little ... Way back in the 2003 ALCS, in The Grady Little Game, Martinez also had Matsui at 0 and 2 when he tried to throw a fastball up and in. Matsui ripped it for a double in that huge eighth inning comeback. Martinez should have been out of the game then, too. Little came to the mound for that at-bat but inexplicably left him in as left-hander Alan Embree waited in the bullpen for a call that did not come.

Manuel pulled his own Grady Little in Game 6.

Back in that 2003 ALCS, speaking about the Matsui double, Martinez said, "We've probably thrown Matsui 80 pitches up and in, and he's never hit that pitch."

Well, guess what: Matsui solved Martinez. Beginning with that at-bat, Martinez has faced Matsui 13 times. He has retired him only five times, none in the past five plate appearances. Matsui is 6 for 11 (.545) with two walks. And that is the matchup Manuel wanted?

"When he got there, Pedro, he knows how to pitch," Manuel said of the Matsui at-bat. "He's got experience, he knows how to pitch and everything, and you know, I had to let him face that guy."

Asked to explain the at-bats by Matsui, Martinez was not interested in giving any explanation. "It's over," he said. "He got me. That's it."

5. Final thoughts and observations: Martinez lasted only four innings in Game 6 (and even that was too long). Only two future Hall of Famers ever lost a World Series clincher by lasting so few innings: Bob Lemon (1954) and Early Wynn (1959). ... How pesky was Johnny Damon? He fouled off 22 pitches in six games. Like Melky Cabrera in Game 4, Damon left Wednesday night's game with a strained muscle in his leg. The Yankees' outfield at the time they clinched the World Series consisted of Jerry Hairston Jr., Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher. ... Andy Pettitte walked five batters and at one point took the uncharacteristic move of airing out home plate umpire Joe West while walking off the field after the inning. ... Speaking of the umpires, not only did we get through the Series without a game-deciding blown call, the umpires did a very solid job on the whole. ... The World Series MVP Award won't change the chances of whether the Yankees re-sign Hideki Matsui. Ray Knight, Jack Morris and John Wetteland all left their teams after winning the award.

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